By Kenneth Reynolds
Continuing our Cinereach Producers Award series, we’re talking to Jamund Washington, whose producing work includes the 2016 Emmy Award-nominated television film, SILENCED, SXSW Grand Jury Prize winner and Independent Spirit Award-nominated, GIMMIE THE LOOT, and he is an executive producer, writer, and director on the Peabody Award-winning HBO series RANDOM ACTS OF FLYNESS.
As a quick introduction, I’m Kenny Reynolds and this is my first interview for Dear Producer… I met Rebecca Green at the Sundance Creative Sundance Producing Summit and she asked if I would volunteer some time by interviewing other producers for the site and I jumped at the chance. Being based in New Orleans, I often feel removed from the community so I thought this would be a great opportunity to connect with other producers. So that you and the Dear Producer readers know a little about me, I produced the film LOST BAYOU, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival this year and I just participated in the Sundance Producing Lab and Summit. But enough about me, we are here to talk about you!
I like to think of myself as a producer in the beginning of his career too, so I think we probably have a similar perspective.
What’s your background and what led you to where you are in your career now?
I actually started as an actor many years ago. Then from there, I directed some really bad short films [laughs] that led me to pursuing film school with a focus on directing. I just fell into producing short films for classmates of mine and found that I had a bit of a knack for it. I think that directors appreciated my approach to producing because of my perspective as someone who understood and studied directing. I think directors I work with feel like their vision is very much protected with me as the producer. At least that’s how I like to think of it. They might give you a different answer, though. [laughs]
You still direct though, right?
Yes, I do, as much as possible. And I was able to do quite a bit of directing on RANDOM ACTS OF FLYNESS.
So, if I’m looking at your business card does it read Jamund Washington: Producer-Director, or does it read: Director-Producer?
I would like it to just say Filmmaker. [laughs]
Speaking of filmmaking, you’re a filmmaker from the South, but you now reside in New York. Is that correct?
I’ve lived in New York for over 12 years now. Actually, longer than that, 13 years. I was here for a couple of years before film school and I’ve been here ever since, but I do still spend quite a bit of time in Texas. My roots are very heavy there, but I’m based in New York.
I’m based out of New Orleans so I’m not in the Los Angeles or New York epicenters. I’m curious to hear how you manage work-life balance in a city that to me seem all consuming and how you figure out how to still stay connected to Austin and if that’s important to you.
It can be as simple as having a routine that keeps you outside of the chaos. Whether it be exercise, trying to eat healthy or recently I’ve tried getting into meditating quite a bit more, even though I’m not particularly good at it. You may be bad at it, but even just taking the time I think is really helpful. Just taking the time to give your mind that break from all of the stress-inducing things that I think come naturally with not just producing, but all aspects of filmmaking.
I’m not sure if that has anything to do with South versus those epicenters… I’ll tell you what though, eating in the South – especially in Texas and I know this is probably the case with New Orleans too – it is much more difficult to eat healthy in those places because there are so many options that are just delicious and not that good for you. [laughs]
Indeed, but hey, it’s like feeding the soul. At least that’s the excuse I give myself. Do you travel back often or do you primarily reside and work in New York?
New York is definitely home-base. Most of the work that I do is here. There have been a couple of small projects that I’ve been able to do back home and I’m planning to cultivate that into a bigger presence there over the next few years.
Earlier you said you feel like you’re also at the beginning of your career, so tell me, how would you define where your career is now?
That’s an easier question to answer from the outside looking in, because from the inside, I don’t know that it ever feels like you’re actually making progress. I think every project is just as difficult to put together as the next one. What changes as you move up in your career is that the projects get a little bigger or have a bigger audience, or you have some success and you get into a bigger room, or the room that you’re in is a little different, but the struggle doesn’t really change or the grind to get it done doesn’t really change.
On the inside, it never feels easy so if you don’t take the time to step back and say, “What have I accomplished? What are my successes?.” then you never see them. I think that’s important and I probably don’t take enough time doing that to actually appreciate my accomplishments, because you’re just so caught up in the grind and getting the next project done. I don’t know that I necessarily understood that going in. You think that you’ll make a project and if it has some success, then all of a sudden you’ve arrived.
The truth is that that never really happens. Anybody that’s trying to make a project, no matter how big or how small, is going through the same struggle you’re going through. The end result just is a little bigger if they have some success. I think this is an important perspective to have for people starting out so that they know that the things that they’re going through, they’re not alone. Even if it’s a no-budget project, the same struggles will exist if they’re making a multimillion-dollar project or a studio film for that matter. So if you don’t love the process, maybe find something else to do.
I know I personally feel like I’m constantly somewhere – I hate to overuse the term imposter syndrome – but when I walk into some of these rooms and navigate some of these unfamiliar spaces, I always feel a loss of confidence, like I just don’t feel like I belong or am experienced enough to be there. Do you still find that struggle exists or does that dissipate with the growth and the progress of your career?
I think that feeling always exists to some extent. The truth is that, as seriously as we have to take this in order to get things done, it’s really important to remember that what we actually do is play pretend for a living. I think that when you remember that, then no matter what room you’re in and no matter how serious those conversations are, it always comes back to that.
We create worlds that don’t exist, which is playing pretend, which is what kids do when they’re growing up. [laughs] They imagine a story and they act it out. That’s what we’re doing. We’re writing it, and shooting it and editing it and putting it out to the world, but ultimately, it’s just kids playing pretend. Understanding that perspective, no matter how big the room is and no matter how important the conversation is, I think really helps to stay grounded in a way that alleviates a lot of that imposter syndrome feeling.
I want to dive into that from a slightly different perspective in that we’re now hearing about all the effort being put into getting more minority voices in front and behind the camera. However, some find that true more so than others. As a black man myself, I’m curious how you find navigating these rooms from the perspective of being a black man in this industry. Have the challenges been what you anticipated? How have you combated them? What challenges have you bumped up against that you weren’t expecting?
Obviously, there are many, many challenges when it comes to being a black man in this industry. I think that a lot of it has to do with the people who are in the position to make decisions, whether it be financing decisions, distribution decisions, or even the creative decisions. They are often not the people who are telling those stories or even have a real understanding of the perspective of those stories.
Over the course of my maturation, often I was trying to force a square peg into a round hole in the sense of having stories to tell and trying to make them fit into the understanding of the decision-makers instead of communicating the reasons that they don’t understand and why it’s still important for them to be told.
RANDOM ACTS OF FLYNESS is a really perfect example of that. I don’t think the decision-makers at HBO ever completely understood what RANDOM ACTS OF FLYNESS was all about. I don’t think it has the impact on them that it has on its audience or its primary audience. However, what we were able to do was make them understand that the audience not only wanted the show, but needed it for a variety of reasons. We were able to convince HBO that these types of stories or this type of perspective on stories was not something that existed and that the audience very much wanted and needed it and would react to it in a way that reflected that.
I’d like to think that what’s happening in the industry right now – that people are aware that there’s a need for diversity in storytelling and the perspective of stories. Not only that, but that the people who are in the position to make those decisions are starting to realize that they don’t have to completely understand or connect with a particular story and that’s okay. That they can put it in the hands of people that they trust to bring those stories to life and that an audience will react to that. I hope RANDOM ACTS OF FLYNESS has set a good precedent for that. I hope that’s how things will progress.
Speaking of getting the executives to understand RANDOM ACTS OF FLYNESS, in Kishori Rajan’s interview, she talked about the pitch process with HBO, but how did you describe this super-complex show to your friends and family?
Describe it? I had a funny way to describe it. I’d say that we got a group of black writers and producers with diverse backgrounds together in one room, we all went to therapy, and we put that therapy on screen. Now, I don’t know how well that actually describes the show, but it’s at least intriguing enough to make people want to go and watch it [laughs].
I love that. I feel like it’s a show that allows for a lot of curiosity and that’s what the genius in it is.
So I’m in the process of narrowing down what I’m looking for in a mentor for the Sundance fellowship. I’m curious, have you have a mentor or some sort of guide along the way?
Honestly, I didn’t have or don’t now have anyone that I look to as a formal mentor and there isn’t anyone that I formally mentor. But I’m also anti the term mentor, particularly in this industry. We don’t work in an industry where someone can show you the path. Every path is different. Mentorship assumes the mentor has the answers to your questions. The mentor teaches and doesn’t have anything to learn. I think that we should all just help each other and learn from each other. I’m still learning. If we just talk and learn from each other we all benefit.
You said you see yourself still at the beginning of your career, but you’re not quite at the starting line either… If there was a piece of advice you could give to the version yourself at the starting line, what would that be?
I would say, ‘Just make stuff, man.’ Putting these projects together, for the pieces to come together, it takes so long. If you’re not careful, your creative muscles can atrophy in those downtimes. While you’re putting projects together you can make stuff, you can tell stories. It doesn’t have to be exactly how you envision the perfect scenario for the story, just keep those muscles going. Even if that means just writing, make sure that you just keep those creative muscles going, no matter what, that is as important as the projects coming together,
That would be the thing I would tell myself early on, more than anything else. Especially coming from a media epicenter, because I think that you can get caught up in this idea of needing permission from the people who are in the positions of power, whether that be studios in LA or even putting independent films together in New York. You can get caught up in this grind of getting permission. The truth is that it’s so easy just to make stuff now. In addition to putting whatever the big ideas are together, because it can take years to put these projects together, in the in-between time, just make stuff, man.
Jamund Washington is an NYC based filmmaker. His producing work includes the 2016 Emmy Award-nominated television film, SILENCED, South by Southwest Grand Jury Prize winner and Independent Spirit Award-nominated, GIMMIE THE LOOT, and the Netflix original, TRAMP, which he also co-wrote. He is an Executive Producer, Writer, and Director on the Peabody Award-winning HBO series RANDOM ACTS OF FLYNESS, which was recently renewed for a second season.